How can we be our best when things are at their worst?
The humanitarian sector works to bring protection and assistance to communities around the world impacted by disasters and crises. A global reform agenda was launched in 2016 to transform the sector so crisis affected communities are at the centre of its work. Progress has been slow and there is frustration around the lack of change.
BehaviourWorks Australia has been working with the Humanitarian Advisory Group (HAG) to improve outcomes for this sector by identifying where behavioural science could encourage change. Behavioural science can help us better understand why we don’t always do the things we should. Let’s look at some lessons from behavioural science and how they apply to the humanitarian sector.
Humans have two systems of thinking - system one, which is automatic and effortless, and system two, which is conscious, calculated and requires more intense concentration. When faced with the pressure of making many important decisions quickly, we may fall back on mental shortcuts and biases to ‘get through’, but in some cases, this can create outcomes that are not ideal. Over 200 biases in humans have been identified; here are just a few examples.
The Status Quo Bias; the ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ mentality. This inertia can lead us to avoid change when it is most needed by falling into familiar patterns such as - “that’s the way we always do it”. When this is combined with Loss Aversion, where losses loom larger than gains, there is often a reluctance to try new things as fear of failure outweighs possible gains.
Stereotyping is another shortcut; we tend to clump people into generalised categories that are quick and easy (e.g. ‘Refugee’, ‘Aid Worker’, etc.) but which can undermine efforts to encourage inclusive participation and create a genuinely localised response to a crisis. Crisis affected people can be stereotyped as victims and not be seen as the very people who have the knowledge, insights, and ideas around how to best recover. The image of the Humanitarian as some kind of ‘first world saviour’ is an example of how stereotyping can skew thinking towards ‘us and them’ instead of collaborating.
We can influence people by the use of Framing. How we present information can evoke different emotions and generate different responses. Research has shown that framing the exact same information in terms of lives lost versus lives saved can lead to big differences in people’s risk preferences when picking a solution.
When it comes to stopping a course of action, the Sunk Cost Bias works against this; the more we’ve invested in something, the harder it is to stop. In the humanitarian sector, programs may continue despite poor outcomes simply because so much has been already invested - or sunk - into them.
Behavioural science tells us a few uncomfortable truths about the way humans behave. We need more than information, we are unpredictable, focus on short-term gains, and good intentions sometimes lead us astray. We see this playing out in the humanitarian sector through campaigns, bad behaviour, and donations.
Information alone isn’t enough to bring about change. We still have to remind people about basic hand-washing hygiene, even after decades of educational campaigns. During a crisis people also process information differently as recall, understanding, and comprehension can all be impacted.
People are unpredictable. We look for short-term gains which can lead to long-term losses, and the carrot and stick approach of rewards and punishments doesn’t always work (and sometimes backfires). However good our intentions are, our actions can make crisis situations worse.
Take the vexed area of donations. Time and again, humanitarians face the challenge of dealing with useless, and even harmful donations pouring into a disaster zone, which pulls relief workers away from essential tasks. Money is far quicker and more effective in a crisis than the stuffed toys, apples, and disco dresses, which have suddenly turned up by the container load.
Findings from behavioural science point to general principles that can help bring about change. Things like changing defaults in a system, showing that most people do a particular behaviour, and an easy one-click donation system can all help bring about change for good.
Beyond quick wins, behavioural science methods can also help us ‘deep dive’ to understand the drivers and barriers of behaviours that sit within a complex system, as our work in bushfire preparedness and hospital care has shown. Like the humanitarian sector, these are systems where lives are at stake and good decisions are vital.
The pressure to react quickly to a humanitarian disaster is overwhelming, but when we’re aware of the thinking patterns which can trip us up and the psychological impact of a crisis, we’re better prepared for them. Humans are complex at the best of times, so we need to understand what drives us when things are at their worst.
Authors: Geoff Paine, Kun Zhao, Beth Eggleston
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